Fort Smith at St Joseph, MO gets new 10-inch Siege Mortar on Iron Bed
Ft. Smith was erected in the early days of September 1861, as a Union fortification for several very important reasons. First, by mid-August 1861, the Confederacy was will on its way to gaining military control over the state of Missouri. On August 10, 1861, Confederate General Sterling Price achieved a major victory at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek, located outside Springfield, Missouri in the southwest corner of the state. Commanding Union General Nathaniel Lyon was killed during the engagement. Lyon would become the first Union general to be killed during the American Civil War.
After the battle, and in hopes of wrangling Missouri into the Confederate fold, Price, accompanied by his 10,000 troops, marched northward along the western boundary of the state in mid-September with his eye on the wealthy port of Lexington, Missouri. Between September 17-29, 1861, in what became known as the “Battle of the Hemp Bales,” Price surrounded and defeated his Union counterpart, Colonel James A. Mulligan, capturing 2,500 Union prisoners. Total casualties for both sides were 2,500. It should also be pointed out on July 5, the first battle of the Civil War west of the Mississippi had occurred at Carthage, Missouri resulting in a Confederate victory. With the added loss at Lexington, the North had now been defeated in 3 successive battles in Missouri within the span of roughly 2 months.
Second, at the same time as Price is consuming Union armies, Union General James Lane, the noted Jayhawker of the Missouri-Kansas Border War, is shadowing Price in his trek northward, by advancing along the Kansas state line. Lane had received the knick name of the “Grim Chieftain” for his merciless actions as a Jayhawker. On September 22, Lane sacked Osceola, Missouri, which had been used off and on as a headquarters for Price. Lane causes over $1,000,000 in property damage, burns all but 3 buildings, steals 350 horses and mules and takes 200 Negroes. Afterwards, Lane marches into Kansas City, only 50 miles south of St. Joseph and Ft. Smith.
Third, Missouri’s government in exile, consisting of Governor Claiborne Jackson, passes a resolution of secession for the state at Nevada, Missouri located on the western border. The Confederacy accepts Missouri as a new state and adds a 12th star to the Confederate flag in recognition. The United States, though, does not recognize the article of secession because Jackson and his followers did not have a quorum of Missouri representatives present to support the measure.
Fourth, rebel sympathizers are reported in Elwood, Kansas, which is located directly across the Missouri River from St. Joseph.
Fifth, St. Joseph represents the communication and western migration epicenter of the country. Why? Most importantly, it was the strategic significance of the city. Of particular importance, it was the western terminus of the national’s railroad system in 1861. Next, it was the eastern terminus of Pony Express overland mail route to California, which kept the communication lines open to the vast western regions of the country. It is credited with helping pacify and keep California in the Union, which was invaluable to the nation because of its gold fields and reserves. Further, it was a major steamboat terminus linking the Missouri-Mississippi-Ohio River complex connecting river passage across the country.
In addition, St. Joseph was one of the major western migration departure points on the Oregon-California Trails. It also had a connecting link to the Santa Fe Trail. The town was known as the “Gateway to the West,” even though St. Louis has long claimed this title. Lastly, the city was a terminus for the telegraph. All of these points made St. Joseph of immense strategic and geographic importance, which bore heavily on the possible future outcome of the war depending on which side controlled the town.
Sixth, Missouri was a slave state and St. Joseph was evenly split in its sentiments between the North and South. The city had been controlled several times by Union and Confederate forces up to and during this very early point in the war. The city’s former mayor, M. Jeff Thompson even lead a group of 500 rioters to the local post office and tore down the American flag in May 1861, whereupon the flag was shredded by the mob and its pole thrown into the Missouri River. As a result, and because of the city’s strategic importance, Union troops were dispatched to hold the town. These troops consisted of the 16th Illinois Regiment under the command of Colonel Robert Smith, who immediately set about building breast works on top of Prospect Hill. The fortification overlooked the Missouri River, thereby offering a strategic advantage to Smith and his 2,000 troops. As added protection, he positioned 12 cannon in the fort. The fort was erected hastily because of Price’s and Lane’s movement northward on both sides of the Missouri-Kansas line. Although, Lane was a Union commander, he was known for creating mischief where ever an opportunity arose mainly in part because of his Jayhawking past.
The bottom line is the city represented the central hub of all the country’s major communication and commercial passage routes. It was the ebb and flow point of the nation. The fort was constructed to present an ominous barrier to those forces wanting to capture St. Joseph. It also signified a Union presence against the town’s unruly citizens. As a result of the Border War, there was great suspicion and concern as to further capture and invasion by roaming armies and militia units.
Ft. Smith represented a sense of stability to an otherwise volatile region. To its credit, it remained operational until the spring of 1863. At this time, the focus of the Civil War in the west had shifted further south to the Mississippi River with Union General U. S. Grant’s efforts to capture the vital Confederate port of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Who’s to say, had Ft. Smith not been built, and the city had been seized and held by Confederate forces, General Grant might have come knocking on the doors of St. Joseph.
Although a hostile shot was never fired from a top Ft. Smith, it stood as a beacon of freedom and national unity between the eastern and western regions of the country. This was of major importance, especially when all the bounds of unity had been dissolved between the southern and northern domains of the nation. The fort represented a stop gap, which held, in a time of great unraveling. It would also come to symbolize a monument of freedom to runaway slaves and our future African-American citizens long before the construction of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D. C. The reason for this statement is based on a simple act of nature, when during the winter of 1862-63, the Missouri River froze solid and the area directly north of Ft. Smith became the second largest runaway slave route crossing the Missouri River outside of Independence into the free state of Kansas. It could be said, under the shadow of Union guns, men, women and children, who were once slaves, finally found a new birth in freedom.
Steen Cannons is supplying Fort Smith with a reproduction 10-inch Siege Mortar on Iron Bed